TORONTO - The Countess of Wessex praised the efforts of families Thursday as a new autism centre was announced to bring education, life training skills and research together on a central campus in Toronto.

The Kae Martin Campus will be the first of its kind in Canada, organizers said, and will help put autistic children on a path toward self-sufficiency.

"We hope it can be a template that can be replicated not only in Ontario but across Canada, where the private sector puts the capital to build it and the public sector puts the operating dollars in to run it," said Steve Hudson, co-chair of the Spectrum of Hope Autism Foundation.

Sophie, the wife of the Queen's youngest son, Prince Edward, met students and staff and toured classrooms at the New Haven Learning Centre in Toronto's west end, where the launch event was held.

"I am very impressed with the dedication and determination of the families and individuals who have committed time, energy and money to be part of this novel and compelling model of autism care and research," she said.

"It is inspiring to see such a visionary model begin to come together."

The countess has been a patron of causes related to helping autistic children for years.

The new campus will be located in north Toronto and named for the late Kae Martin, a dedicated advocate whose grandchild was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Hudson said $25 million of the needed $40 million has already been raised. Organizers hope to break ground within 18 months and start accepting students in the fall of 2013 or soon after, he added.

There is a huge waiting list and the 520 spots are expected to fill up very quickly, he said.

Research will be co-ordinated with nearby institutes of higher education.

"There's lots of great research going on, whether it be at York University or George Brown or University of Toronto," Hudson said.

"We want to integrate those research programs into our campus. We're not looking to start afresh on research.... That dialogue is well underway, particularly with York University."

Applied behaviour analysis, or ABA, is one method used to help autistic children. It is basically a one-on-one experience involving a teacher and student.

But Hudson said they'd like to scale it up and see if it can be done with one teacher for every two or three -- or more -- students.

This could reduce expenses from $65,000 per student, which is the current annual cost for one-on-one instruction, he noted.

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition that typically affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment.

Hudson called autism a "huge epidemic" that affects 28,000 young people under the age of 20 in Ontario alone.

The New Haven Learning Centre was started by parents brainstorming around a kitchen table about how to meet the educational needs of their children, he said. The New Haven school has 40 students.